DreamWorks Animation tends to gear their animation towards kids. As a result, bathroom humor and colors tend to dominate their stories. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is more the exception than the rule (see also: How to Train Your Dragon). The movie based on an old cartoon combines education and animation in a really fun and surprisingly emotional way. Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn't perfect, but it is a very good kids movie that adults can enjoy as well.
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the smartest dog and creature on the planet. After solving many of the world's problems, Peabody decides to adopt a boy named Sherman (Max Charles). The pair go on several historical adventures to learn about history/science, etc using the Way Back, a time travel device invented by Mr. Peabody. Things start to go badly when Sherman takes Penny (Ariel Winter) into the Way Back after she bullies him at school; together, they disrupt the space time continuum. In addition, Mr. Peabody's parenting credentials are questioned by Penny's parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) and DCFS rep Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney).
Mr. Peabody & Sherman makes education fun for EVERYONE. Sure, kids will learn a lot through Sesame Street or the Wiggles or some other program designed for them, but adults usually glaze over during that time. Mr. Peabody is an avid supporter of knowledge in science, history, and sport. To teach Sherman lessons, he uses his education to engage in chases, parties and other ways that make history come alive for Sherman. So often in kids movies, the storytellers try to talk down to the kids to make the lessons easier for them to understand. Mr. Peabody & Sherman uses historical characters like Leonardo Da Vinci and King Tut to teach kids about lessons in parenting and tolerance. The movie is a double whammy of education that is rarely seen on the big screen.
In addition, the first act of Mr. Peabody & Sherman attaches some emotional heft to supremely fun material. A cute backstory montage should bring you close to tears as we learn the origins of Mr. Peabody & Sherman's relationship. Each little time travel trip, Sherman makes some sort of mistake, but Mr. Peabody never condescendingly scolds the child. When he does lash out at Sherman, it comes out of love, not anger, which hits kids and parents equally. In addition, the non-traditional family question (similar to what is going on in the US) is brought up by the DCFS rep. The third act was all set up to be a great climax showing how Sherman stands up for Peabody by using the education the dog taught him. However, the time travel parts of the story force the plot in that direction, which results in really cool special effects but a diluted emotional payoff.
The voice acting isn't A list but fits nicely. Ty Burrell is great for Peabody: he can deliver a cheesy pun better than most other actors (check him out on Modern Family). Max Charles sells Sherman's innocence well. Ariel Winter (also from Modern Family) is perky but a little to shrill as Penny. Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, and Dennis Haysbert, among others, provide energetic support to the story without distracting with a crazy voice.
I hope Mr. Peabody & Sherman makes a lot of money. It is a wonderful mix of education and animation. I left reminded of how a good family film can learn from history to teach kids lessons while entertaining adults in the process. If you need to brush up on ancient history, enjoy talking dogs, or come from a non-traditional family, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is right up your alley.
At least the Greeks have Thermopylae. 300: Rise of An Empire attempts to replicate the style and machismo of the original 300, with limited success. Were it not for the presence of Eva Green and her cold hard revenge, 300: Rise of An Empire (like the male star, Sullivan Stapleton) would be masquerading as something cool and fun that is in actuality kinda boring and no longer cool. Athens apparently is a poor substitute for Sparta.
300: Rise of an Empire is a sidequel (it occurs simultaneously with its predecessor). While Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) fights Leonidas and Sparta, Artemisia (Eva Green) takes the massive Persian navy and attacks the undermatched Athenians. She is matched by Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the hero of the battle of Marathon a decade earlier. Thmistokles goal is to unite the city states of Greece under one free nation, so he repeatedly seeks the help of the Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), Leonidas's widow, to aid in the defense of their nation.
300 was cool in part because of its style. 300: Rise of An Empire mostly retains the same techniques of the first film. There is more blood and violence here, using the blood splashing and slow motion violence to solid effect. The fight scenes are well executed, though lacking a little of the fluidity and oddity of the villains of the first movie. (Athenian fighting is one-on-one, whereas Spartan fighting in the first 300 is a single army unit moving as one.) Where 300: Rise of An Empire adds some substance is in the sexuality. The first movie was about misogyny and how strong men can be. 300: Rise of An Empire throws an equally capable female into the mix. Artemisia is given such a tragic backstory that during the naval warfare, I was torn on who to root for. She is cold, calculating, and the right amount of unhinged, culminating in the most literal sexual power struggle I have seen on screen in some time.
Too bad the movie picks the wrong side and wrong story. The movie uses the peripheral characters in the original 300 in addition to Themistokles to drive the narrative. Themistokles is supposed to stoke the macho fire in every guy like Leonidas did, but lengthy speeches about freedom and no "This is SPARTA!!!" moment turn the character into the movie's vapid wasteland for time. One person in my theater actually fell asleep TWICE when the movie focused on him. The more compelling angle would be to parallel Eva Green's story with Leonidas's martyrdom to force the audience to pick sides in a sequel, or really focus on the political machinations of uniting Greece. Instead, we get half formed subplots surrounding a retread of the first film with a big hole at its center and logic holes throughout: one character is right in front of an explosion and no damage is done to their face, and another boards an enemy ship to speak to the villain with no guards for himself. As a result, each battle yields less returns, and the payoffs are mostly nonexistent.
Why does everyone in 300: Rise of an Empire look so pained? This movie should be fun. The one GREAT exception is Eva Green. Her gaze alone strikes fear in the audience when she speaks where her words manifest the depravity and soullessness that her eyes deliver. I was riveted anytime she was on screen, and 300: Rise of An Empire suffers mightily without her presence. Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro (along with a cameo from David Wenham) are the holdovers from the first movie; neither gets enough screen time to leave a great lasting impression although there is promise there. Sullivan Stapleton is channeling the Ghost of Gerard Butler's Leonidas without any of the fierce pride Butler brought to the part. Stapleton also has trouble conveying deep sadness, which ruins any chance at making Themistokles complex. The Athenian's companions are equally unmemorable 6-packs in short shorts.
300: Rise of an Empire leaves itself easy for a joke about a particular male organ. I'll take the high road and say that you should see this movie only for Eva Green's lifeless glares and pure evil. Plus one of the most ridiculous sex scenes outside of a Nicholas Cage movie. That should be phallic enough for you.
Liam Neeson's special set of skills equally apply in the air I guess. Non-Stop takes the action star of the moment and puts him in a Hitchcockian type thriller. While there are obvious plot holes and little character development, Non-Stop succeeds because it is an effective thriller with a very solid supporting cast of character actors and a good Neeson at the movie's center. Plus it has the best airplane bathroom fight scene that will probably be filmed.
Bill Marks (Neeson) is a tormented US Air Marshall with a heart of gold; you know he is tormented because he drinks, and he is a good guy because he helps scared little children. On a flight across the Atlantic, Marks receives texts on his phone from an unknown caller who says he will kill a person on board every twenty minutes for $150 million. However, it becomes clear to Marks that there may be a more nefarious plot going on besides money. In addition, there are lots of possible suspects, including "trusted" flight attendants (Lupita Nyong'o and Michelle Dockery), The red head who switched seats to sit next to him (Julianne Moore), and several others.
When focused on the search for the perpetrators, Non-Stop ripples with tension. The use of text messaging is key here: it keeps the screen silent and keeps Neeson from growling and barking into his phone. Plus everyone has a phone, so everyone is a suspect. The claustrophobia of the plane is used effectively; as the search goes on, panic and paranoia can be seen amongst the passengers. Surrounding Neeson are familiar but not too familiar character actors making it hard for the audience to see who is behind the screen. Moore, Dockery, Nyong'o, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache, Anson Mount, and Omar Metwally all are recognized faces, making it hard for the audience to lock down right away the big reveal. In addition, the screenplay does a great job creating situations to suspect everyone, clouding the picture further. I genuinely was surprised at the end result, a hard trick to pull for even the best screenplay.
Non-Stop does not stand up to intense scrutiny however. In fact, there are several examples of questionable choices that threaten to derail the thriller. Neeson begs for help several times after it is clear he looks guilty and people just succumb to his will. When he has a chance to shut down the cell network and flush out the texter, he chooses to keep the network open. Neeson keeps the whole flight in the dark for a very long time; they take forever to become suspicious of Marks's motives. However, the end is where the story falls apart. The motive for the hijacking is downright ludicrous; it would have been better to just have motivationless evildoing be the reason a la the Joker in Batman. Also, the media gets wind of a hijacked flight and finds out Neeson is the suspect, but when he leaves the plane, not one police officer arrives to arrest him. Non-Stop does a great job showing Neeson earn respect of the fliers; it would have been nice to see them stand up for him and eliminate an obvious plot hole.
In the end though, the story is fun enough and Neeson kicks enough butt in the third act that Non-Stop earns the price of admission. It is never boring and paces itself very nicely, just like this review. If you were paying attention hard enough, you will notice I left a clue to solve Non-Stop's whodunit. Good luck, and remember the skies are now safer with Liam Neeson up there.
The Wind Rises is animator Hayao Miyazaki's last film. Famous internationally for crafting animated classics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki strikes another win with the Wind Rises, a wonderful display of dreaming and flight. Though The Wind Rises isn't as instantly classic as some of Miyazaki's greatest hits, it is a fine swan song because of the movie's material, solid screenplay, and wonderful images. Enjoy your retirement sir.
The Wind Rises starts in 20's Japan. Jiro (voiced in the English dubbing by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer who dreams of creating airplanes. On his way to college, he runs into Naoko (Emily Blunt) a painter with her head in the clouds like Jiro. When they are forced to leave the train under emergency circumstances, Jiro saves Naoko and her maid from death before returning to school (Jiro never tells Naoko who he is). Jiro eventually works for a plane manufacturer and designer, where he is quickly earns the respect of his boss Kurokawa (Martin Short) and his friend/co-worker Honjo (John Krasinski). After a couple failed tests, Jiro retreats for the summer and runs into Naoko again, both admitting their feelings for each other have never relented.
When a non-CGI animated film like The Wind Rises comes to the screen, there can be a tendency to lament the upcoming perceived drop in quality because of the precision of computer animation. However, Miyazaki does most of the drawings himself, and most of them are infused with a depth of quality and detail that equal and even surpass computer efforts because of the heart put into their creation. The scenes on the airplanes and trains are joys to see: wonderfully created rolling countryside with beautiful lively colors. There is an earthquake that genuinely creates tension and fear with a simple change in the color palette, and early morning/night images add to the dreamlike atmosphere of the story. The image that sits with me though is a scene outside of a garden entrance to a building. Two characters are talking, and in the very background mosquitos and moths are flying around a light; the scene was already fine, but touches like the bugs show just how careful and deliberate each sketch was constructed and brought to life. Animators like Miyazaki do not come around often enough, and his presence is greatest in The Wind Rises's drawings.
Miyazaki is also not afraid of placing messages in his films. Usually, the message is environmentally driven since it is clear Miyazaki loves nature and its beauty. In The Wind Rises, the director takes aim at governmental intervention into dreams and fear mongering. These aims come into direct conflict with the other story: Jiro's dreaming and courtship of Naoko. The morality of the Wind Rises complicates Jiro's story in a more negative way; the jabs at governmental corruption create jarring tonal shifts that don't really weave well together throughout the movie. Miyazaki does try his best: there is an element of dread established right from the get go, but in the end the warring tones leave a mess in their path. The duality of the story also limits the impact of the climax, forcing The Wind Rises into an unsatisfactory payoff despite the audience's hopes.
Miyazaki's biggest gift to his viewers is the characters he creates. There is usually someone to connect with for each audience member. Jiro is the dreamer that is fully aware of reality closing in on him; Joseph Gordon-Levitt nicely tones down his mannerisms to give Jiro dignity and enthusiasm in leaps and bounds. Naoko is more thinly drawn, but tough decisions give her more layers; Emily Blunt gives her spunk and sells the relationship with Jiro. Honjo (Krasinski) and Kurokawa (Short) are clearly the comic relief, but they also get some nice moments when pushed by the story. No character is black ad white in a Miyazaki film, there is always a little something to each person.
The Wind Rises didn't take my breath away like Princess Mononoke, and it lacks the ingenuity of Spirited Away, but it has enough quality material that make me lament Hayao Miyazaki's retirement. At the movie's heights, I was soaring above the clouds without a care in the world, and I wound up getting choked up and scared more than I expected to. Hayao Miyazaki's head must be a wonderful thing to get to experience, and I am happy The Wind Rises let me experience it one last time.
Detroit's hero is back. Robocop has been rebooted and modernized. His tale is not as fresh as it was in 1987, but the story retains the core issues of the original. Much like the hero Alex Murphy, 2014 Robocop isn't perfect but it gets the job done.
Flash forward to 2028. The world is successfully patrolled by unmanned drones funded by the Omnicorp Corporation and their CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). However, the United States is too distrusting of robots. As a result, the corporation marketing team (Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) and their conservative news anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) choose to put a robot in a suit to capture the US market. They select Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop from Detroit fighting corrupt police. Nursed back to "life" by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Murphy becomes a hero to the masses. Soon however, he starts overriding his protocols as his personality seeps into the robot.
Similar to the 1987 Robocop, 2014 Robocop touches on identity and corporate branding. The identity part matches the 1987 version, with some great discussions on control during the testing phase of Robocop. Corporate branding is also very interesting, especially incorporating the media into the story. The big ideas make Robocop really fun to watch, and provide the most compelling material in the story. The violence has been dulled though, lessening the impact of the coldness of the robots. Instead, the movie smartly sets up some scary boo! explosions and takes the camera away at the last second, leaving the carnage to the viewer imagination. The actions sequences aren't great, but they are never boring, getting the point across.
If only the personal revenge story were more interesting. We get a solid 3 minutes of time with Alex and his family before he is "killed." We get a bit more time with Alex's partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but for the most part, these people in Alex's life aren't given much of a personality. In addition, the big idea and media part of the story have more compelling discussions and deserve at least equal screen time. As a result, the ending feels abrupt and rushed, with not enough fleshing out of Alex's connections to deserve the big conflict at the end. If anything, Robocop could have used another twenty minutes or so to give more context around Alex's home life and personal morality to give the ending more emotional punch.
Joel Kinnaman, probably by design, is very rigid and cold as our new Robocop. Peter Weller, a really good actor, played the original Robocop as a more conflicted man: you could see the machinations of his mind fighting internally. Kinnaman's limited range is hidden well by the directors, with his best moment coming when he sees what is left of his body. He doesn't really add or detract to the movie. Surrounding Kinnaman are very good character actors that elevate the material they are working with. Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and (especially) Michael Keaton get to do some cool corporate machination, with Keaton playing his eccentricity off well. Michael K. Williams and Abbie Cornish are good with limited screen time. Jackie Earl Haley plays a surprisingly intense, smart, and blunt soldier.Sam Jackson plays off his personality well as a Fox News type anchor. The biggest head scratcher is Gary Oldman, who gets the most compelling role and does some interesting stuff as the doctor, but feels very shortchanged after the movie is over.
Robocop is neither bad nor good. It is a solid remake that embraces its predecessor while connecting the character to a new audience. What is most compelling is watching Sam Jackson as a right wing conservative; I would watch an entire movie about his rise to power.